The Ancestors Bring Historian Basil Davidson, 95, Home
What a loss.
Basil Davidson, who has died aged 95, was a radical journalist in the great anti-imperial tradition, and became a distinguished historian of pre-colonial Africa. An energetic and charismatic figure, he was dropped behind enemy lines during the second world war and joined that legendary band of British soldiers who fought with the partisans in Yugoslavia and in Italy. Years later, he was the first reporter to travel with the guerrillas fighting the Portuguese in Angola and Guinea-Bissau, and brought their struggle to the world’s attention.
For many years he was at the centre of the campaigns for Africa’s liberation from colonialism and apartheid, endlessly addressing meetings and working on committees. Extremely tall and with a shock of white hair, and possessing the old-fashioned courtesy of the ex-army officer that he was – or even of the country gentleman that he eventually became after his move to the West Country – he was an unlikely figure at many of these often incoherent and sometimes sectarian events, usually run by student activists and exiles.
Among his friends were the historians Thomas Hodgkin, EP Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. The Palestinian scholar Edward Said placed him in a select band of western artists and intellectuals with a sympathy and comprehension of foreign cultures that meant that they had “in effect, crossed to the other side”.
The right side, I think.
From 1951 onwards, Basil Risbridger Davidson’s books and articles analyzed and outlined centuries of African achievements; the impact of the slave trade on Africans; the damaging effects of European colonialism on Africans; and finally, the outcome of the transmission of the nation state idea in Africa.
Malcolm X read him. So did the Panthers. The Afrocentrists as well as Africanists rely on his work. His works are referenced in papers and in lectures in our universities and colleges. The Texas school board probably thought of him when they banished any mention of the slave trade in upcoming textbooks. Enter any independent black bookstore in this country, and you will find Basil Davidson’s books.
In his book, The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State, published in 1992, Davidson suggested that newly-created African nation states adopted (or were forced to adopt) too many European (and American) political and economic systems and institutions without analyzing first and choosing which of these might work well within their countries. Each ethnic group and/or nation possessed its own evolving checks and balances that curbed corruption and distributed power equally among the people without massive pressures that resulted in social breakdowns. But these naturally-arising institutions and structures were pushed aside so that ‘strongmen’–Mobutu, Idi Amin, Mugabe, for whatever purpose–might endure, sometimes at the behest of Western countries. Davidson believed that this was the reason why many African nations, at the turn of the century, faced so many problems and difficulties. However, Davidson refuted the idea that there was some inherent defect in Africans and their ethnic groups that resulted in the collapse or failure of their nation states. This is an racist idea that has currency among too many Westerners today.
In 1984, Davidson launched a ground-breaking, eight-part television documentary about Africa on Channel 4, Africa: A Voyage of Discovery with Basil Davidson that was repeated on PBS for Americans. His alternate view of Africa was far more realistic and challenging than the daily, three-minute news bits about famines, civil war, clan atrocities, wars between countries, revolutions, and AIDS that still color many people’s perceptions of the continent. It dispelled myths and stereotypes and outright errors. To this day, he is affectionately remembered for this program. You can still find the documentary online, and not only on You Tube. But it has not been transferred from VHS to DVD or Blu Ray. One set of the documentary, on Amazon.com, is going for $400.00.
That’s how precious his work has become to many of us. He did right to the truth of African humanity, African and black ancestry and African and black greatness.
Basil Davidson is survived by his wife Marion, and his three sons, Keir, Nicholas and James.